This feature originally appeared as the Bold Bevs column in the July 2020 issue of Void Magazine under the headline “Business Unusual: Local craft breweries weather a new kind of storm.”

Ruby Beach Brewing had it all planned out. Set to make the move from the Beaches to their new downtown location sometime in mid-May, Ruby Beach Brewmaster Patrick Pruitt had been busy brewing at full capacity to get out as much beer as possible before they halted production and packed up the brewhouse. He had just tapped a new session IPA he was excited to bring to market and was waiting on the brewery’s distributor to pick up one final massive order when word came through that pickups would be halted indefinitely.

In Riverside, a new brewery was opening. Chas Nemeck, Brewmaster for Kingmaker Brewing, was ready to debut his new line of beers in the former Intuition brewery location on King Street. On Friday, March 13, they celebrated their soft opening. That following Tuesday, Governor DeSantis issued a shutdown order on all bars and restaurants across the state. “Our initial reaction was bewilderment because of the uncertainty and lack of guidance regarding the particulars of the shutdown,” Nemeck recalls. “We were really wondering how long it might be before we would be able to open again.”

“One of the lessons we learned is that it is important to do business in a way that meets our customers’ expectations,” Kingmaker brewmaster Chas Nemeck (pictured) explains. “If they are not comfortable with the experience we offer, they won’t come in.”

Modern craft brewery taprooms are venues for convivial socialization as much as they are tasting rooms for brands to showcase their products. In the wake of the shutdown, smaller craft breweries, particularly new ones still fighting to make a name for themselves and land distribution deals, faced serious challenges that threatened to unmake them. But for many, the same spirit that attracted them to the game fueled their innovative and creative responses to doing business in new ways. 

Ruby Beach was uniquely prepared for the downtime. “We were planning on transitioning down here anyway so the timing was actually OK for us,” Pruitt admits. “It was just a bit sooner than we planned.” They were never able to sell that giant order though and in the time since, the brewery hasn’t brought in any revenue. However, that isn’t stopping them from proceeding full-steam ahead with the renovation of their new facility. Pruitt hopes to begin brewing again soon and anticipates opening the new taproom as early as August; but anything could happen between now and then–as we’ve learned all too well.

Kingmaker’s operations were flexible enough to allow them space to quickly adapt as restrictions eventually began to ease. In mid-April they began selling to-go crowlers and reopened the taproom at the beginning of May. They invited food trucks onto their property to bypass the restriction on bars and were able to accommodate extra customers by adding additional outdoor seating. But getting people into the taproom in the middle of a pandemic came with its own set of challenges. “One of the lessons we learned is that it is important to do business in a way that meets our customers’ expectations,” Nemeck explains. “If they are not comfortable with the experience we offer, they won’t come in.”

Reve Brewing was enjoying their position as one of the beach’s hottest new experimental breweries when everything changed. “Obviously it’s always kind of scary when someone tells you you can’t do your business model,” says Brewmaster Eric Luman. However, thanks to their healthy existing to-go culture, Reve was able to deftly navigate the challenges of the new normal and worked quickly to respond to the situation. 

“We switched to online ordering right away,” Luman explains. “Giving the customer the option to shop at home was the best thing we did. When they came to the door we had it bagged and ready with minimal contact.” Changing the transaction process would make customers feel better about picking up their beer but Reve still had to do something to keep people coming back. “We decided that day that we would ramp up our schedule and do new releases every day of the week,” he adds. New limited release beers were announced the morning of, creating timely demand that kept sales steady and allowed both Reve’s bills and staff to be paid. “By no means did we kill it, but we maintained just fine,” Luman reports. “The whole thing was unnerving though, you never knew if it would dry up all of a sudden or if things would change day-to-day.”

That notion has prompted changes to the way Reve and likely other breweries will do business moving forward. Luman sees the to-go trend only gaining momentum in the future. “I think throughout the whole beverage industry, to-go beer is going to be much more important than it was before this,” he notes. To that end, Reve purchased a 16 oz canning line that will allow them to package even more beer. They’ll also stick with their new aggressive production schedule, and by the time this goes to print, they will have begun build-out on an additional 2400 square feet, tripling their current footprint.

Bigger breweries like Intuition faced their own set of unique circumstances, not the least of which was looking after the safety and welfare of their sizable staff. “The first thing we wanted to do was take care of our employees,” says Dan Courts, Intuition’s Director of Sales. They quickly implemented social distancing measures to keep the brewers brewing and because their taproom includes a restaurant, bartenders were able to return to work sooner than most. But a significant portion of Intuition’s business revolves around people pre-gaming in the taproom before sporting events and concerts, all of which disappeared overnight and don’t seem likely to return anytime soon. However, their existing relationships with grocery stores enabled them to keep sales going from day one. “There was a huge spike in grocery sales which helped us mitigate some of the damage,” Courts explains. 

There’s no doubt that every brewery felt the crunch, but for the most part all seemed to emerge relatively unscathed thanks largely in part to overwhelming community support. “The local craft consumers really came through for all the breweries,” Courts recalls. “There were people driving around from brewery to brewery just to support everyone.”

This feature originally appeared as the Bold Bevs column in the July 2020 issue of Void Magazine under the headline “Business Unusual: Local craft breweries weather a new kind of storm.”

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